The Only Game in Town: The Death of Sportswriting

ON SUNDAY, JUNE 24, 2007, something remarkable happened. The Inquirer sports page did not run a story describing the Phillies game the night before. Instead, Todd Zolecki, the paper’s baseball beat writer, told us about the ruptured tendon in pitcher Jon Lieber’s foot, how he’ll likely miss the rest of the season, manager Charlie Manuel’s reaction to that news, and so forth. A description of the game itself — an 8-3 Phils loss — was relegated to a mere 12 lines deep in the story, instead of the usual full monty of when and where things went south for the woebegone locals. Maybe the revolution — also known as the Inquirer and Daily News finally recognizing that the Internet and cable TV and talk radio bring us the game story faster and better than newspapers — has finally begun.

Or maybe not. As Daily News columnist Bill Conlin, the last of the literary breed of local pundits, puts it in an e-mail, “Newspapers continue to be mired in the obsolete mind-set that it never happened if it isn’t on newsprint — and never mind if your newspaper gets there later than Confederate reinforcements at Gettysburg. We need to not only layer the sound-bite immediacy of TV and the Chinese water torture of Eskcaldelphia talk radio with literate opinion, but to get back to a dying public service called enterprise journalism.”

These are wonderful thoughts. The problem is, writers and editors at the papers themselves seem to think they’re doing a swell job as it is. So it went that the next day, Monday, June 25, 2007, there was a game story in the Inquirer, describing the key moments of Sunday’s win. By Todd Zolecki. The Daily News had one, too, by Paul Hagen. Never mind that most of the Greater Delaware Valley knew all about those key moments before Monday got here.

SOME HISTORY IS NECESSARY: A half-century ago, sportswriters didn’t even talk to ballplayers. They watched games, then told us what happened, often in grand terms. Partly, that’s because it was a relatively naive, hero-worshiping time; also, the teams slipped sportswriters brown envelopes with 50 or a hundred bucks for expenses on the road, and you had to be careful about biting the hand that greased yours.

Larry Merchant and TV changed that. (Oddly enough, TV is still the main competition our current sportswriters are not responding to.) When Merchant became sports editor of the Daily News in 1957, he stopped taking money from local teams, and understood that games presented from the quickly-becoming-­ubiquitous boxes in our living rooms meant that his pages had to evolve. Consider a Merchant column from July 1960, two years before the world held its collective breath over the Cuban Missile crisis, describing a dugout exchange with two Cuban players:

’Bout a week ago [Tony] Taylor and fellow revolutionary Pancho Herrera were sitting in the Phill dugout discussing baseball’s political situation. Taylor had an attitude of hurt resignation. Herrera, then on the hot end of a 20-game hitting streak, was hopefully philosophical.

“I not make the [all-star] team,” said Taylor. “Last year I hit .325 and make only two error and I not make it — how can I make it now?” … The second baseman spoke with a quiet bitterness, like a disillusioned idealist who couldn’t understand what had happened to his dream. Herrera nodded empathetically. …

“I’ll bet you five dollars Taylor makes it,” a man said to Herrera. “Maybe you, too.”

“Okay, five dollar.”

“No, a dollar.”


“Forget it,” Taylor said. “Forget it. If I no make it last year … ”

“Hey, you think I can make it?” Herrera interrupted. It was a delayed reaction, a verbal double take.

THAT LITTLE TABLEAU may seem, to our sophisticated ear, naive or condescending — but back then, it was radical. Interviewing players, prodding, poking, understanding them as people, and even using the emerging tools of literary journalism to create scenes to bring them to life as characters — it was all new. Ah, the fun they had. Rookie columnist Stan Hochman wrote about a starting pitcher demoted to reliever this way: “Johnny Antonelli faces the facts the way he faces Ernie Banks or Ken Boyer or Wally Moon. Realistically, methodically, and with an ashy-gray patience, remnants of the fires of controversy.” And they began probing into new, truly controversial places: A DN piece, that same July 1960, wondered if the Giants were troubled by racial cliques — “white players, another of the Latin-Americans and another of the Negroes.” (The Giants said no.) “They were a new breed,” Pat Williams, who was a young executive with the 76ers back then and later GM, observed of Merchant’s staff, “and they scared everyone in sports to death.”

Fast-forward 20 years, to 1980, the year the Phillies won their one and only championship. Bill Conlin was a Phillies beat writer, beginning game stories like his life, and ours, depended on it:

“The Phillies and the Dodgers have played four games this spring, and late-arriving fans have missed 11 first-inning runs by the Dodgers. That’s like spotting Frank Rizzo 50,000 votes in South Philly, like giving Seattle Slew a three-second start in the Preakness. Look at all the trouble there was when Neville Chamberlain spotted Hitler Austria and Czechoslovakia.”

A QUARTER-CENTURY AGO, our papers crackled with that sort of writing, game stories and columns that demanded sports play out as a metaphor for the ordinary business of the world. Daily News bylines included Hochman, Weiss, Cushman, Schulian, Didinger — and a young La Salle grad, Gary Smith, who began a piece on an Eagles reunion like so: “This was Sunday, the first reunion of the Eagles’ ’48-’49 championship team, but now the last backs had been slapped and the boys were fading into the darkness one by one like whispers from the past.” (Before long, Smith was off to Sports Illustrated, to become the best profile writer in America.) The point is, the Daily News and Inquirer and Bulletin were still the most important places, up until about 1990 (the Bulletin folded in ’82), to find out what was going on in sports, and writers rode that need, connected it to our lives: Here it is! Isn’t it incredible, and sad and weird and, sometimes, heroic?

Now, though, Angelo Cataldi and Michael Barkann and a thousand bloggers and ESPN are riding that wave — faster, more immediately, louder — sucking the energy right out of the morning papers. Strangely, when our papers should be delivering more, we’re getting less. (Do baseball’s beat writers ever toss off metaphors that, Conlin-like, bring John Street or the Iraq war into the mix of baseball’s meaning?) Even our best writers now, like the Inquirer’s Bob Ford and David Aldridge and Daily News columnist Rich Hofmann, are no longer necessary — we don’t have to go to them in the morning, to find out what they have to say. Partly, the problem lies, as the Daily News guys in particular complain, with earlier deadlines (the DN used to come out several hours later), which make it tough to go deeper than other media. But the writers themselves are to blame, too: We’re not driven to them by the grace and feeling of their prose or thinking — as with Conlin, or the recently retired heart-on-his-sleeve Bill Lyon, a longtime Inquirer columnist — or by learning something we can’t get somewhere else. That’s true of both the beat writers and the columnists pretty much across the board. And they don’t seem to get it — that they’ve got to come up with something new.

As Hofmann says, “It’s not brain surgery.” Meaning there’s a certain formula to writing his column, as if what he does is etched in stone, even though both the Inquirer and Daily News sports editors claim that their columnists are free to write whatever they want. In fact, a dozen writers questioned from the DN and Inquirer say, for the most part, that the crowded media landscape hasn’t much changed what they do or how they do it. But the effect of their work is different. For example, on a morning in late June, when I open to page one of the sports section of the Inquirer that’s landed at my doorstep: Jim Salisbury on the Phillies’ chances for climbing into first place, Zolecki on Pat Burrell’s (latest) ongoing slump, Ford on whether Brett Myers should be a starter or a reliever, Aldridge on how pro basketball looks for offensive players over defensive. None of this is new or fresh. Take Salisbury’s first paragraph:

“The Phillies open their final home stand before the all-star break tonight and, incredibly, could be leading the National League East by the time it ends late Sunday afternoon.”

OUR CURRENT SPORTSWRITING IS STUCK, more than anything, in the worst side of sports, which is a rote, escapist striving to nowhere, played out again and again and again and again. “For some reason,” says Sports Illustrated’s Smith, who’s still a fan of Philly teams, “there is less and less of a premium there on hiring people with strong voices or a unique approach. I put that at the feet of the editors — why not go after original voices?” From 1995 to 2006, the Daily News sports department hired one new writer: Dana Pennett O’Neil. The talent is out there, says Pat McLoone, who runs DN’s sports department. But the economic squeeze on newspapers over the past decade means we’re basically stuck with what we’ve got. Hello, Stephen A. Smith, he of the ubiquitous TV presence (he gets that, at least) and hopelessly mangled sentences.

Clearly the tradition-stuck sports pages need to be shaken up. Here are a few thoughts on how to do that:

1. No more game stories unless it’s a perfect game in the World Series, by a Phillies pitcher.

2. Break out of the traditional mold of hiring writers from small newspapers, where nothing creative is happening — why can’t some of our push-the-envelope bloggers reinvigorate newspapers? For that matter, why not move columnists from other sections of the paper into sports, and have them really write whatever they want, as long as it isn’t about the games themselves? Which gets to:

3. Tell us the truth about the players, the coaches, and the teams’ front offices without regard for a continuing relationship with them. (Hey, you’re not writing game stories anymore, so what’s it matter?) That means that Phil Jasner, so open in an off-the-record conversation about the state of the 76ers locker room before and after Allen Iverson was traded, would have to actually write about that; hot-button problems like Andy Reid’s family and Brett Myers’s troubled marriage would be revisited. (For example: Is there a connection between Myers’s fiery love of being the Phillies’ closer — the most macho job in baseball — and his apparent hair-trigger temper at home?) Stan Hochman himself wonders why we’re not probing into how the purse strings of the Phillies are really controlled, or how Joe Banner, who used to run clothing stores, got so good at managing the salary cap. (Hint: Maybe he’s not.) This sort of stuff, of course, would piss off teams and players. But it would certainly get readers interested again.

BACK IN 1991, GQ’s Alan Richman, who had covered the 76ers for the Daily News in the early ’70s, wrote about the decline of sportswriting; he noted that the Inquirer had recently sunk to Michael Bamberger discovering that defense wins baseball games and “baseball is a wholly unpredictable game.” Richman felt that sportswriters have an obligation to serve as our tell-it-like-it-is Peck’s bad boys. SI’s Smith wonders if our local writers are too nice, or soft, to probe deeper. Because we’re still sunk in this: A month ago, in his Baseball Notes column, the DN’s Paul Hagen told us that an umpire called balls and strikes for a game that came within one out of a no-hitter, and the very next time the ump was behind the plate, a Detroit pitcher actually did throw a no-hitter. So here it comes, Hagen’s words of wisdom: “That’s the thing about baseball. You never know what’s going to happen.” On our sports pages, unfortunately, we do.